Simanaitis Says

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THE OCTOBER 4, 2013, issue of Science magazine, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, has a Special Section on Communication in Science. There are aspects galore, everything from the concept of free access to scientific papers, to a lack of scrutiny in many open-access journals, to the effects on patents on dissemination, to the optimal models of scholarly journals and symposia.


“How much science is there?” is itself an interesting question.

Imagine a bibliography of every scholarly paper ever written (not the entire paper, just the usual citation of title and authorship). Furthermore, imagine listing 140 of these citations per page, and 1000 pages per volume.


Here’s the plan. Image from Science, October 4, 2013.

• The citations of all scientific papers prior to 1880 would fit in just a few volumes.

• Those for 1880, the year that Science magazine was founded, would add another 100 pages.

• By 1920, the list would be growing by 500 pages each year.

• The 1975 listing alone would fill four of those 1000-page volumes.

• Today, there are 15 volumes each year—a page of 140 listings every 45 minutes.

During the past 133 years, a lot has happened in academic publishing. For a long time, journals were costly to assemble and distribute. Often only libraries could afford them.

Then came the Internet (scientific exchange being one of its intended applications). By the late 1980s, the first online science journals appeared.

Online journals brought a trend to open access, that is, articles that are freely available to all on publication. It’s generally considered that open access reached a tipping point around 2011: More than 50 percent of new research is now available free online. The rest generally are free within a year at journal websites or other repositories.

Earlier this year, for example, the federal government ordered its science agencies to make all papers free within 12 months. Beginning in 2014, the European Commission will require free access within 6-12 months.

Free access raises the question of who pays for the publication. Generally, such journals charge the researcher an author fee, $500 to $2500 not atypically. Also, as a general practice, the researcher includes this cost in the overhead portion of the grant supporting the research.

Grant writing has become a very specialized, and crucial, aspect of science communication.

Another evolving aspect of science communication is the process of peer review. Is a proposed paper significant? Is its science robust? Who decides? Ordinarily, this is the function of peer review, of anonymous but fellow scientists reading and commenting on the paper.

John Bohannon, who writes for Science, concocted a test of open-access peer review with a spoof paper. It described properties of an anticancer drug extracted from lichen, what Bohannon called “a scientific version of Mad Libs.” He invented an author, Ocorrafoo Cobange, a biologist at the Wassee Institute of Medicine in Asmara. And then he submitted the paper to 304 free-access journals.


A breakdown of spoof paper results. Image from Science, October 4, 2013, by C. Smith/Science.

A total of 157 journals accepted the spoof paper; 98 rejected it. Of the remaining 49 journals, 29 just dropped out of sight. Editors of the other 20 said the paper was still under review.

If a reviewer raised an objection, Bohannon would resubmit the paper with “a few more photos of lichens, fancier formatting, … but without changing fatal scientific flaws.”

If accepted, before accruing any fee, Bohannon would send the journal an e-mail saying a serious flaw invalidated its conclusions, and the paper should be withdrawn.

Of the 225 undergoing the entire editorial process, about 60 percent showed no signs of peer review. There’s good news/bad news in this. If rejected, it suggests the journal had enough smarts to toss it out. If accepted, it hints at rubber-stamping, merely for the publication fee.


Follow the money: Often journal, editor and bank are continents apart. Image from Science, October 4, 2013, by David Quinn and Daniel Wiesmann.

Bohannon said he worked with scientists who care deeply about open access. Said one of the scientists, “Everyone agrees that open access is a good thing. The question is how to achieve it.”

Certainly Science magazine, October 4, 2013, provided good analyses of the issues. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2013

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This entry was posted on October 16, 2013 by in Sci-Tech and tagged , , , .
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